'I give good baddy, me'

Yet there's more to Keith Allen, he'd have us know, than just a talent for acting the thug. He's played both a Tolpuddle Martyr and a gay footballer in his time. Now he's a philosopher in Pinter's 'The Homecoming'. So don't pigeonhole him, OK? By Robert Hanks
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The Independent Culture
Most people would say, 'Oh great, Keith Allen's in The Homecoming; he'll be playing Lenny then,'" says Keith Allen. "But, of course, I'm not." He's perfectly right. At any rate, Lenny is who I reckoned he'd be playing. Lenny, after all, is an extremely nasty piece of work, a domineering thug with a penchant for anecdotes that end with him committing arbitrary acts of violence against women. And nasty pieces of work are what Allen is best at playing - most memorably the wife-beating parricide Jonas Chuzzlewit in the BBC's Martin Chuzzlewit. Natural casting, you'd have thought.

In fact, in Roger Michell's revival of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, which opens tomorrow night at the National Theatre, Allen gets to play Lenny's comparatively civilised brother, Teddy. Teddy is an intellectual, a philosopher at an unnamed American university with a lovely wife, Ruth, and three lovely children; it's Teddy's and Ruth's arrival unannounced at his family home in the East End that sparks off a messily ritualised conflict for sexual and territorial possession. Whether Teddy is really any nicer than Lenny, or simply better at disguising it, is debatable. (Peter Hall, who directed the first production in 1965, later said that Teddy is "the biggest bastard in a house full of bastards".) Still, it's not quite the part you'd expect Keith Allen to play.

Meeting Allen, though, the logic of the casting quickly becomes plain. In the flesh, Allen doesn't seem half as thuggish as he does on screen - no sneer, surprisingly light-voiced (though that settles down once he's got a cigarette going), shorter than I'd realised, extremely helpful about the whole business of being interviewed. This comes as a relief, since he has a reputation for being a challenging interviewee - one journalist who wrote a profile a couple of years ago ended up going out for a night on the town and having a drunken Allen's tongue poked in his ear. On the whole, I'm pleased we're meeting in the National Theatre canteen on a Tuesday morning, when that sort of thing doesn't seem so likely.

This is not to say, however, that Allen is the dream interviewee; far from it. For one thing, he's determinedly contradictory. Asked why he plays so many villains, his immediate reaction is to start telling you about all the parts he's played where he was really quite nice: a sensitive gay footballer in an episode of The Comic Strip Presents; a wholly pleasant northern lad in a BBC drama series (Born to Run, broadcast later this year). Once he's established that the generalisation doesn't stand up, however, he happily falls into chatting about why there should be a preponderance of villains in his career - "I give good baddy, me. I've got the eyes." He's the one who suggests that most people would expect him to play Lenny: "And Lenny, for me, would be a lot easier to play, without a doubt."

He's so keen to contradict your ideas about him that he doesn't seem to mind contradicting himself. At one point, going through his life history, he says that at drama college he "played football for two years for the University of Wales... hardly bothered with the drama course"; a few minutes later, asked about the difficulties of switching from a career as a stand- up comic to straight acting, he says, "I hadn't been asleep at drama college - I knew what it was about."

At first, this looks like sheer bloody-mindedness. To be fair, his career does resist generalisation. He keeps on reminding me of things he's been in that I'd forgotten about: he was a Tolpuddle Martyr in Bill Douglas's marvellous agitprop film Comrades and he played opposite Ian McKellen in Walter, the first play ever broadcast on Channel 4 (mind you, he was the bloke who beat McKellen up). In 1983 he was, he says, Channel 4's election night coverage, all by himself.

Rerunning the conversation later, though, what comes across is Allen's determination not to let anybody pigeonhole him. He's worried about losing control of his image; perhaps this helps to explain why he's never been content simply to act, but writes and directs as well. Last month, in a film for Channel 4's series Travels with My Camera, he visited the scenes of his youth (the public school he was expelled from; the detention centre and borstal where he did time for petty crimes) in company with his father, Eddie Allen. One of the most striking scenes was Keith's meeting with a young repeat-offender: he railed at the lad for assuming that once he got out of borstal he'd soon be back in, explaining afterwards that the lad's problem was that he felt like a criminal. "I never felt like a criminal," he said. This seems like a key to his personality: nobody should judge him by what they see, the circumstances he's in; he wants you to know that he's more than that.

The other issue that arose from that film was Keith's feeling that he and his father had never communicated properly; making the film was something of a breakthrough for the two of them. This clearly shapes his view of the family in The Homecoming: talking about the domestic warfare in the play, he says, "Families are dictated - in my knowledge of families, anyway - their history and their present and everything is dictated by what's not said, not by what is said. That seems to carry the weight."

This brings us to another matter: Allen's affinity, or lack of it, for Pinter. Talking to him about his part in The Homecoming seemed like a good idea because, having heard him play - excellently - the poetical yob Foster in a radio production of No Man's Land in 1992, I had a vague notion that he might have a particular feeling for acting Pinter, and hoped he would have some thoughts on why this should be. It's probably to do with the substratum of aggression that comes across in Allen's screen performances (this is only his second ever stage play), which connects nicely with the lurking violence of Pinter's work.

Allen absolutely refuses to go along with this line of thinking, though: "My relationship with Pinter is only through No Man's Land and The Homecoming, because I've never read any others." And since he didn't have to learn a part for No Man's Land, what with it having been on the radio, he claims he doesn't really remember anything about that - "The first day that the company [of The Homecoming] met, Harold was there. And I walked up to Harold and I said, 'Oh, hi, Harold. You remember me?' And he said, 'Well of course I remember you.' I said, 'Well, really?' And he said, 'Yes, you did No Man's Land, didn't you?' And I said, 'Yeah, oh yeah, so I did.'"

Still, the fact that Allen knows little of Pinter's work may be what makes him especially well equipped for it. Pinter himself has always resisted attempts to find meaning in his work, or to provide contexts for his characters. Among many utterances on the subject, he has written: "I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say: That is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did."

Pinter has also railed against the over-reverential treatment of his text. Allen tells how, before rehearsals for The Homecoming broke up for Christmas, the company gave a run-through for the author. When Roger Michell queried with him the logic of a particular pause in the script, "Pinter just put his pencil down and he said, 'I wrote the play 30 years ago for fuck's sake. If you don't need the pause, don't use it'" - echoing a comment the playwright made in an interview 10 years ago, when he complained that "those silences have achieved such significance that they have overwhelmed the bloody plays. Which I find a bloody pain in the arse."

Given these feelings, you suspect that Allen is exactly the sort of actor that Pinter and any enlightened director of Pinter would like to use in his plays: how often can you get so much talent and intelligence so thoroughly untrammelled by preconceptions, so unimpressed by the Pinter Pause? Maybe Allen's coming home.

'The Homecoming' opens tomorrow night at the Royal National Theatre (Lyttelton auditorium). Booking: 0171-928 2252